Church History's Biggest Hoax
What does the fall of Constantinople in 1453 have to do with the exposure of a famous forgery?
For a half century before Turks took the city, the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, church scholars traveled often between Constantinople and Italy. Fearing Turkish invasion, scholars brought more than 230 ancient manuscripts back to Italy, rescuing the texts from oblivion and feeding the Renaissance with "new" ideas.
The discovery of these books led to a tremendous interest in languages and historical and contextual criticism. It also fed a new interest in discovering whether ancient documents were genuine.
Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457), a specialist in Latin translation and philology (the study of words), took an interest in examining ancient and modern authors and their style of writing. Thus he became, unwittingly, one of the first scholars to examine ancient documents for their authenticity.
Early in his career, Valla made a critical study of Jerome's Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the Roman Catholic church. He raised troubling questions about some of Jerome's word choices, such as Latin paenitentia ("penance") for Greek metanoia (better rendered "repentance"). Valla essentially suggested that the Catholic church's entire system of penance and indulgences rested on a mistranslation! Later critics of that system, including Erasmus, used Valla's textual notes and praised his work.
Alfonso, king of Aragon, Sicily, and Naples, as well as a patron of scholarship, hired Valla as his secretary in 1435. Alfonso wished to expand his territory by annexing papal lands, so in addition to admiring Valla's intellect, he probably hoped to use the scholar as a secret weapon against the church.
In 1440, under the king's protection from Pope ...